Tell the Pin that Brad was my calling card and I need words.
— Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
The beginning and end of Brick are telling: The first is about constriction and close-ups: a still shot of tunnel that recedes into darkness; a young man’s eyes, behind glasses, contemplating a young woman’s body at the tunnel’s mouth, and that body, face down and crumpled. As Brick closes, the focus is opposite: a long, stationary shot observing another girl as she walks across an empty football field, her slight sultry form disappearing step by step, watched by that same boy.
Much happens to Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) between his initial moment on screen and his last. And yet his actual movement is slight. Part of this is owing to the fact that he’s a kid in high school in Southern California, and Rian Johnson’s film (his third feature, following 2002’s smart, underseen horror riff, May) is on one level, a deconstruction of high school movies. Where the typical high school movie hero triumphs over the bully, wins the big game, and/or finds true love, Brendan joins the bully (at least for a time), loses the game and the girl. You know this last part at the start, for that corpse is Emily (Emilie de Ravin), his much-missed ex. He spends a third of the film searching for her, the rest of it avenging her death. None of his efforts takes him beyond the high school football field where no team ever appears.
Brick‘s simultaneous embrace of and challenge to high school movie conventions takes the strange form of noir (as that sad-looking body hints right off). Or maybe not so strange. Proms and yearbook awards are never so meaningful in the moment as they are in their nostalgic movie iterations. In fact, much of high school is comprised of high drama and angst, broken hearts and painful encounters, sharp shadows and fears: noir stuff. And so, reframing high school in noirish terms — here, The Maltese Falcon by way of Heathers — makes a sinister and compelling sense, especially when the kids in play take themselves utterly seriously, like they’re Jake Gittes discovering the water runoff.
The action is set “Two days previous” to the scene where Brendan stares at the body. And in this previous moment, he gets a note from Em, left in his locker. He arrives the appointed intersection, takes her phone call in a booth by the highway, and listens as she claims she actually doesn’t need help, though she said she did, then screams as she’s confronted by something terrible and unseen. Throughout Brick, what you don’t see generates as much complication and tension as what you do. Sometimes this excess is just off screen (Emily’s scare), sometimes pushed to the back of a shot so it’s difficult to interpret, as when femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) blows off her jock boyfriend Brad (Brian J. White) under a streetlight: the image is gorgeously gloomy but what she says or what his reaction has to do with what comes next is unclear.
Brendan, with the glasses, makes it his business to see what’s going on, being the usual noir guy who walks mean streets. He has a moral compass, but ignores it when he needs to (as when he threatens a pack of local stoners, led by Dode [Noah Segan]: “I got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you”). Brendan’s aided in his quest by the Brain (Matt O’Leary), who does useful internet research and Xeroxing, reports on his mom’s cell phone (here’s something new: high school students who are not gizmoed out the wazoo), and likes the potential payback for the evil-doing “upper crust” (“You think you can raise the strength, maybe break some deserving teeth?”). They learn Em was mixed up with the cool kids (“Who’s she eating with?” is the question marking her move to another section of the cafeteria), crossed someone, and ended up “in trouble.” Brendan’s investigation starts with his desperate effort to win her back, her resistance to his fretful-teen-boy possessiveness (“I really loved you a lot,” she says, “I couldn’t stand it”), and his subsequent discovery that she’s “been with” other boys.
While this plot is heartbreaking and high school movie generic, the execution is lively and deft. Edited on a Mac in Johnson’s bedroom and winner of a 2005 Sundance award for “originality of vision,” Brick loves the harsh angle (Steve Yedlin’s camera is low, skewed, too close or long, predominantly stationary set-ups) and blackout editing. The spaces are fragmented, making the puzzle of high school seem literal. The abuses are also literal, as Brendan steps into beatings, his pretty face smashed repeatedly, kicks and jabs fortified by big-fat throwdown sound effects (here he’s looking like Dick Powell, pounded in Murder, My Sweet).
Occasionally, the film showcases Brendan’s faulty vision: the frame is blurred when he first meets local drug kingpin, the Pin (Lukas Haas), until he puts on his glasses and the Pin rises from his wall-facing desk and faces Brendan, dark cape and polished, duck-headed cane enhancing his calculated odiousness. Seeing the Pin clearly doesn’t precisely help Brendan, but he is able to put in motion a series of events that show up the Pin’s actual incapacity to deal with chaos.
Aside from the Brain, who first appears racing through a Rubik’s cube that Brendan casually fixes in seconds, Brendan’s allies are as ambiguous as his seeming adversary, the Pin. Brendan solicits occasional info from cheerleader/actress Kara (Meagan Good), whose ritual training of freshmen to do her bidding makes her seem equal parts Vampyra and Annie Savoy. But she’s plainly untrustworthy and enticingly excessive, whether in Sally Bowles or Kabuki drag, preparing for serial performances in front of her dressing room mirror. Brendan sees through her and can’t see her at the same time: she’s the sexy scary girl, that’s her job.
That said, Brendan works hard to keep on top of his many relationships. He may or may not be in cahoots with one of the only adults who appears in the film, Assistant Vice-Principal Gary Trueman (Richard Roundtree), who thinks he’s got the kid working as a narc, but this so-called agreement seems always on the verge of collapse, owing to Brendan’s own schemes and the fact that adults never get what’s going on in high school even if you tell them.
The film’s other visible adult, the Pin’s mom, makes sure the kids have juice and oatmeal cookies for snacks, then leaves them to their nefarious business, conducted at the kitchen table with ceramic chicken milk pourer included in most every shot. This chicken provides a particularly antic moment for the Pin’s very dedicated muscle, Tugger (Noah Fleiss, in a perversely, frankly brilliant performance). Believing that Brendan needs schooling at the table, Tugger lifts the chicken, glowers, and threatens to mash Brendan’s face, then takes a breath and stalks off, chicken in hand. The camera remains at table top level, watching the chicken disappear then reappear, as Tugger remembers to place it back where he found it. You don’t need to see Tugger’s face here to know what he’s thinking, his arm and torso are that expressive.
Cast as the fall-guy-gunsel, the not-so-bright but very earnest Tugger drives a dark, loud Mustang and brings a welcome warmth and comedy to the film’s hardboily tone and visceral-but-also-abstract violence. At first he seems something of an anomaly in the film, his hulking form, in white knit cap, wifebeater, and big ol’ jeans, menacing and assured. As his vulnerability emerges, and is exploited differently by Brendan and the Pin, his difference looks almost poignant, and then you see for a moment at his home, a family made up of figures just like his, all hulking in front of the tv set. It’s an abrupt and very brief shift in perspective, and reminds you that this is exactly what high school (or noir) is about. You never know where someone’s coming from.